Braving police, Saudi women drivers take to streets

Dozens of Saudi Arabian women defied the Kingdom's ban against women behind the wheel today. Have they struck a blow for equal rights?

By , Correspondent

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    Saudi women board a taxi in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 24. Saudi women got behind the wheel today as part of a campaign to protest the ultraconservative kingdom's ban on female driving.
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She was probably the first to put foot to pedal.

It was 12:44 a.m. and middle-of-the-night dark. She turned the ignition key, lit the headlights, and drove.

In the backseat, her supportive husband filmed his wife making history as the earliest participant in Friday’s campaign by Saudi women to get the right to drive on the roads of their country.

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“I felt great,” the university student said later in an email exchange. “I couldn't believe that I was in Riyadh and driving! I look forward for the day that all of this becomes as natural as men driving.”

The woman, who posted the video on YouTube, said she wanted to remain anonymous “because I'm afraid of the authorities.” She’s also not certain, she wrote, about how her extended family would react to news of what she called “my small mission.”

Overall, the driving campaign got off to a slow start with just shy of 50 women reporting – mostly via Twitter – by the evening that they had gotten behind the wheel in violation of the kingdom’s national ban on female drivers.

The campaign is perhaps the largest and most genuinely grass-roots campaign by Saudi women to demand one of the many rights they are denied in this country, which severely restricts female independence.

Under the guardianship system, women need the permission of their father, husband, or brother to marry, travel outside the country, work outside the home, and have certain kinds of medical procedures.

Though there is no law prohibiting women from driving, the government supports the social custom that women not drive, at least not in the urban areas. In rural parts of the kingdom, women drive regularly without interference.

Many senior members of the royal family and the government have no objection to women driving. But they are reluctant to upset conservatives, both men and women, who argue that their Islamic society should not follow the same pattern of women’s liberation as in Western societies.

The last time the driving ban was challenged in an organized fashion was in 1990 when more 48 Saudi women drove in a convoy around Riyadh for an hour. The women were harshly punished – banned from international travel and suspended from their jobs. Mosque preachers labeled them “whores.”

Later, the kingdom’s most senior religious figure issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, that said women should not drive. But 21 years later, that fatwa is no longer seen as valid by many Muslims, especially since women drive in every other Muslim-majority country in the world.

Other things have also changed. Some religious sheikhs are breaking their silence and speaking out against the austere hardliners, arguing that nothing in Islam prevents women from driving.

The concept behind Friday’s campaign, which was launched in March, is that since there is no law banning women from driving, they should go out and drive en masse to persuade the government to lift the ban. Women were advised not to congregate so as not to violate the ban on demonstrations.

In recent years an increasing number of women have driven, sometimes out of necessity. If caught by traffic police, they were held until their male guardian picked them up and signed a pledge that they would not allow the women to drive again.

By mid-evening Friday, there was no evidence of arrests.

It was a far different story last month, when the government took a tough line against one of the driving campaign organizers. After Manal al-Sharif posted a YouTube video of herself driving around the town of Al Khobar to encourage women to join the campaign, she was detained for nine days.

According to Saudi sources, she was released on orders of King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who is seen as a supporter of women’s rights.

Traffic about the campaign was heavy on Twitter (much of which can be found at the #Women2Drive hashtag), which along with Facebook and YouTube was the main way it was organized.

Tweets poured in from Saudis and non-Saudis offering encouragement to women who drove or were planning to drive. Women who defied the ban and drove tweeted about the responses they got.

“I went to the supermarket and I noticed [that] some grandpa generation were upset but all the people were smiling,” tweeted Maial Shareef.

“I drove my dad’s car this afternoon. Delivered him to the jumah (Friday) prayer and back home,” wrote Mozah. “It went well. Some weren’t happy to see me pick him [up at] the mosque.”

And Tawfiq al-Saif, an author and community leader in the Eastern Province, commented that he was taken for a ride by his wife. It went “just fine,” he wrote. “[S]ome people looked surprised, others were smiling."

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